Commercial air service is vital to our nation’s economy and this is especially true in rural parts of the country. Regular flights into and out of geographically isolated regions like Nebraska’s Third District provide a lifeline connecting our community to the rest of the nation, which is absolutely necessary to a vibrant economy.
In the last five years, however, commercial air service has become endangered as government regulations stifle the availability of qualified pilots. In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began requiring first officers, or co-pilots, to certify 1,500 hours of flight time instead of 250 hours, which had previously been the norm.
Since the implementation of these new requirements, two airlines which provided air service to Third District communities have filed for bankruptcy, citing the inability to find pilots as a primary factor in their financial struggles. Before withdrawing from Nebraska, both airlines had poor flight cancellation records which they indicated had been caused by the new standards.
This in turn severely reduced enplanements at our airports, severing a vital link in areas whose nearest major airport is several hours drive away. At one Third District airport, the total number of flights was reduced by nearly 60 percent in one year.
While this decrease in flights would be bad enough on its own, any airport which falls below 10,000 enplanements in a given year is in danger of losing full funding for capital improvement under the Airport Improvement Program. This means airports in Kearney, North Platte, and Scottsbluff could lose a substantial amount of money used for safety improvements and rehabilitation projects.
It was for this reason I wrote and introduced the Small Airport Regulation Relief Act in 2014 to preserve this funding regardless of the unintended consequences of FAA regulations on co-pilots. My bill was included as an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill enacted in 2016, and again in this year’s bill, which passed in late April.
In an effort to further address the concerns of several communities with passenger air service in my district, I introduced an additional amendment to require a study on the current state of the aviation workforce and what we can do to mitigate pilot shortages.
The FAA reauthorization, including my amendments, is now awaiting Senate action. Senator Fischer, a member of the Senate committee charged with oversight of the FAA, has done a great job of safeguarding Nebraska’s commercial air service in the past. I look forward to her continued partnership on these issues.
Businesses and entrepreneurs are much more likely to invest in communities with dependable logistics and transportation, and I am proud to do my part to promote commercial air service in Nebraska.